“Charm City” review on CityLab

Check out the Atlantic’s CityLab for my latest review of Charm City, a new documentary by Marilyn Ness set on the streets of Baltimore.

Thus, while the film is full of the clichés and conventions of both police procedurals and “poverty-porn,” the overall experience is refreshingly new. Viewers are neither titillated nor terrorized, but are instead invited to take their time and actually experience these places and interactions, reflecting on how they are lived and felt by the people in the documentary….

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See CityLab for the full review.

“The World Before Your Feet” review on CityLab

The Atlantic’s CityLab features my review of Jeremy Workman’s new documentary, THE WORLD BEFORE YOUR FEET. Click, read, watch, share.

As he describes his current project on his blog “I’m Just Walkin’,” it’s a natural, deeper “counterpoint” to his cross-country walk: “Instead of seeing a million places for just a minute each, I’m going to spend a million minutes exploring just one place.” What emerges is a kind of plain-spoken psychogeography, an honest fascination with the details of life and the little mysteries of the city….

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See CityLab for the full review.

“The Experimental City” review on NextCity

My latest op-ed on NextCity discusses THE EXPERIMENTAL CITY, a new documentary by Chad Freidrichs (THE PRUIT-IGOE MYTH). The film explores the lost history of a futuristic attempt to solve urban problems by creating a full-size city from scratch in the isolated woods of northern Minnesota.

Freidrichs has assembled a comprehensive collection of “tomorrow land” visuals and presents them in a visually luxurious symphony of future urbanism: 1960s colors and Jetsonian optimism combine to maximum effect, the visual equivalent of an Esquivel record re-mixed by Steven Soderbergh. The colors, typefaces, film stock, effects and even the static buzz-and-pop of pre-digital hi-fi are all perfectly matched….

Click here for to read.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

The epic struggles between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses have achieved mythic status in the lore of urban planners: two larger-than-life heroes battling over the streets, skylines, and neighborhoods of New York City. Given the importance of this story (and the recent market for superhero films), the appearance of the two together on the silver screen seems long overdue.

CITIZEN JANE: BATTLE FOR THE CITY (Hammond/Tyrnauer, 2017) fills this gap: a workmanlike treatment of the topic, with just enough background and gloss for the newbie, yet plenty of surprising details and war stories to keep the attention of the old hand.

The viewpoint is certainly not “balanced” – Jacobs gets top billing, and seems to have resoundingly won this debate, at least for the present — but the treatment is nonetheless fair, with enough historical context to help viewers appreciate the fears of urban decay that Moses was confronting and the Utopian visions his modernist projects were trying to embrace.

The film is rife with talking heads – over a dozen planners, academics, politicians, activists, and historians, including Max Page, James Howard Kunstler, Mary Rowe, Anthony Flint, Thomas Campanella, and even Mayor Ed Koch – but it wisely limits each to short quips and color commentary. The voices of actors Marisa Tomei and Vincent D’Onofrio bring the words of Jacobs and Moses to life as well.

Primarily, the story is allowed to unfold through an impressive array of archival material: footage of both vibrant streets and failing slums; maps, plans, and renderings depicting gleaming urban renewal schemes (often matched with disappointing images of the post-construction reality); newsreels of “experts” – male, white, suited – planner-splaining their remedies for the cancer of inner city blight; and the obligatory shots of the wrecking ball and the imploding tenement.

The story takes a few side-treks along the way, situating Jacobs in a decade of protest (feminist, environmental, civil rights, anti-war, and highway revolt movements) and exploring the rise and abandonment of large-scale public housing projects. The introductory scenes and closing chapter remind us that the story is not just about New York in the 1950s: urbanization continues to accelerate, and the future of the planet may hinge on the lessons we learn or ignore from this pivotal past.

Viewers eager for more might also be interested in checking out “City Limits,” a 1971 documentary by Laurence Hyde featuring interviews with Jacobs with some great footage from the era; see https://www.nfb.ca/film/city_limits/ to watch online.

(An edited version of this review appeared in the July 2017 issue of Planning Magazine.)

Remembering “The Inner City Mother Goose”

A condensed version of this article appears on The Atlantic’s CityLab

At the close of the 1960s, as the optimism of America’s Post-War economic growth seemed to be fading and the promise of the civil rights movement was giving way to the Nixon-era “law and order” retrenchment, as Johnson’s War on Poverty was being replaced by a new, harsher war on the poor, use of the term “inner city” was peaking as a catch-all phrase to capture the sorrow, the anger, and the blame popularly associated with urban poverty. These two short, common words combined in the mouths of the nation — from a whisper to a scream — to evoke a world of associations, realities, myths, fears, and outrages: crime, drugs, blighted neighborhoods, bad schools, pollution, slum housing, chronic unemployment, and forgotten people, nearly always Black.

Use of the other common shorthand term, “ghetto,” follows an almost identical trajectory. In the years following, residents and activists have pushed back on these terms, calling out their coded racism, and liberal-minded usage panels have increasingly rejected them as a shorthand for urban poverty. (The President apparently missed — or disregarded — this memo.)

But back then, in the shadow of riots and rebellions in Chicago, Watts, Newark, Detroit, Washington DC, Baltimore, Kansas City, and dozens of other cities across America, in the wake of failed or frustrated anti-poverty programs and a growing sense of hopelessness of all sides of “the problem we all live with,” the poet Eve Merriam recruited these two little words in the title of her inspired little book of verse, The Inner City Mother Goose.

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Unassuming at first — a slim, square volume, easily mistaken for any other collection of light children’s verse — the book quickly declared itself a force to be reckoned with. In the six short lines of the first poem,1 Merriam simultaneously issued an invitation for an audience and fired a warning shot across the bow of an all-too-complacent nation:

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Boys and girls come out to play,
The moon doth shine as bright as day.
Leave your supper and leave your sleep,
And join your playfellows in the street.
Come with a whoop and come with a call:
Up, motherfuckers, against the wall.

Thus, from the outset, through that one direct, brutal profanity — incidentally, the only actual swear in the entire book — it was clear that this was a different sort of Mother Goose. From here the book proceeds relentlessly, 65 verses in all, pulling no punches as Merriam takes the reader on a street-level tour of real life in the city, an unromantic “Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?” that includes the dope pusher, the mugger, the slumlord, the junkie, the uncaring and ineffective public school teacher, the trapped latchkey kid, and more.

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Visions of Alt-Berlin in “Man in the High Castle” (no spoilers)

A condensed version of this article appears on The Atlantic’s CityLab.

When used judiciously, establishing shots are one of the most useful techniques in film and television. As the curtain opens on a new scene, a director is able to convey a whole range of important information—the when and where of the setting, as well as the overall mood and moment that we are about the enter—all through a single short shot. Such is the power of imagery.

The first season of Amazon’s new serial adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s alternative-history thriller, “The Man in the High Castle,” has already made excellent use of this technique, often lowering the viewer into scenes of Nazi-occupied New York or Japanese-occupied San Francisco with shots of key buildings or landmarks. We know and love these cities and we immediately recognize these places—only to be jarred by the superimposition of the familiar (Times Square, the Golden Gate Bridge) with new “alt-history” signifiers (swastikas galore; Rising Sun banners; propaganda on the billboards). In a similar vein, the show’s haunting credit sequence—one of the best in recent memory—uses both landmarks and maps to set the stage and orient the viewer. Planners and urban designers would be wise to take note: these short segments beautifully illustrate the ways history, memory, landscape, politics, mapping, and meaning are interwoven in the ways we “make sense of place.”

Early in the second season, however, these shots take on an entirely new—and quite horrifying—relevance, especially for urban planners who know their history. As the story traces back to the corridors of power in the Fatherland, we get our first establishing shot of the Nazi capital of Berlin, looking east past the famous Siegessäule (Victory Column), towards the Brandenburg Gate.

The column itself is nothing surprising: visitors to Berlin today will find it there in the Großer Stern (Great Star) rotary, although when it was originally erected in the 1870s it was much closer to the center of town. In 1939, the 59-meter column was relocated to this spot as the opening salvo in a massive urban planning assault on the historic city led by Hitler’s First Architect, Albert Speer. (In the process, the column was also made 7.5 meters taller through the insertion of additional stone drums; as will become obvious, size mattered quite a lot of Hitler and Speer.)

Speer’s plan—developed in close collaboration with Hitler, who understood the nationalistic power of architecture and urban design—was to transform Berlin: the old city was to be reborn as Welthauptstadt Germania (Germania, World Capital), the seat of the new empire. (The location titles of the show chose to stick with “Berlin,” presumably to give the audience a clearer real-world referent; or perhaps, in deference to his uneasy truce with Japan in the show, the Führer is holding off on claiming total world domination for the moment.)

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Meowtropolis: Review of “Kedi” (New York Observer)

My review of Ceyda Torun’s 2016 documentary KEDI is now out in The New York Observer.

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Everyone in the neighborhood has a favorite cat—they give them names, personalities, entire narratives. Strangely—beautifully—in anthropomorphizing the cats, residents themselves are humanized in the exchange. One senses that Istanbul is a more caring, communal, functional city thanks to the influence of these strays. There is a lesson here: while cats are independent in spirit, they are also fundamentally social at heart. As such, they the perfect urban dwellers: self-sufficient, but also trusting; adventurous and bold, yet still careful and cautious; curiosity mixed with consideration.

See here for the complete review.

(UrbanFilm web extra! If you enjoy the story of Istanbul’s street cats in KEDI, you might also enjoy the 2013 documentary-essay TASKAFA: Stories of the Street, by Andrea Luka Zimmerman, which follows the tales of the cities stray dogs.))

“Behemoth” review on CityLab

The Atlantic’s CityLab features my review of the Zhao Liang’s hauntingly meditative documentary, Behemoth. Click, read, watch, share.

[R]ather than focus close-in on the maw of this insatiable beast, Zhao places his lens at a quiet and safe remove. The effect, however, is not to deliver security, but instead to emphasize scale, an even more distressing aspect of the devastation shown. One explosion may be terrifying, but a relentless series of detonations over thousands of acres becomes almost mundane, a banality of evil. The very vastness inures us to the horror of watching a valley turned into a wasteland, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.

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See CityLab for the full review.

Rebels with a Cause (Nancy Kelly, 2014)

This documentary, subtitled “How a battle over land changed the American landscape forever,” recounts the battles to stop development of the country’s national seashores and other recreation areas. More broadly, it seeks to describe the birth of the modern environmental preservation movement, giving full credit along the way to the “little people” — garden clubs, small farmers, hippies, and community activists — who took the fight to the nation’s capital — and won.

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Narrated by Frances McDormand (FARGO, MOONRISE KINGDOM), the story unfolds from small regional struggles to a national movement with petitions to the White House and eventual action by both the President and Congress. Beginning in Northern California in the 1950s and 60s, the notion of saving the agricultural land in Marin County from development began to took root; with Kennedy’s election, attention shifted to the Cape Cod seashore — but rather than play into the politics of division, the emerging movement grew to embrace both coasts. Soon lands in the east and west — and much more — were on the preservationist agenda. What had once seemed an unconnected string of local fights was a snowballing national movement attracting causes (and supporters) across the country.

Along the way, we hear from an all-star cast of 1960s crusaders, including Stewart Udall (Secretary of the Interior from 1961–1969), Huey Johnson (co-founder of the Trust for Public Land), and Amy Meyer (co-chair of People for a Golden Gate National Recreation Area). Importantly, for urban and regional planners, the film is unequivocal about exactly why these lands need preservation: all too often — both then and now — natural areas are consumed by rampant and poorly planned residential sprawl.

The film is directed by Nancy Kelly. If you enjoy it, you may also want to check out her 2002 film, DOWNSIDE UP: HOW ARE CAN CHANGE THE SPIRIT OF A PLACE, which explored the creation of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the role it played in revitalizing the post-industrial town of North Adams.